Conflict in the church is inevitable. Sometimes staff members make unpopular decisions. Other times they make mistakes. Other conflicts arise when personalities don’t match, people miscommunicate, or people bring frustrations from other aspects of life to the church. In a staff-ministry situation, the possibilities for conflict are multiplied by the number of staff members.Â When I, your staff member, am in a conflict, I need to know you have my back.
Support is the third need staff members have of their lead pastor. When we feel supported we can lead with more confidence, act more decisively, and take more responsibility for our ministry areas. When every action we take is subject to second-guessing, we will become far less effective leaders.
In my years as an associate, many people have gone “over my head” to get a decision reversed. Upset about where the youth are going on their mission trip, how often their music ministry participates in worship, the volunteers chosen to teach Sunday school, the kind of coffee the hospitality committee serves, or some other “important” issue, they will come to you, the lead pastor, to ask you to set me straight.
That must be a seductive moment, especially if you also disagree with my decision. Please resist the temptation to be the hero by taking up the cause of the congregant right away. That will not work out well, as you will see in these true illustrations:
Illustration 1: One afternoon I was called in to the pastor’s office where I was met by a congregant I knew was upset about not being selected as a youth ministry leader. It was immediately apparent the lead pastor had taken the side of the congregant.Â After what felt like hours, but was probably 20 minutes, of trying to bow out graciously, I finally had to say that which what I did not want. I gave the real, concrete reason I had not chosen this person to work with youth, which I’m sure was not easy to hear. Had the lead pastor come to me privately, I would have shared my opinion with him and we could have strategized together a way to use that man’s gifts in our ministry.
Illustration 2: One Sunday when that same lead pastor was away, an issue with a nursery worker, that had been brewing for weeks, came to a climax. I was asked to talk to her. After a few minutes of chatting about this personnel issue she said something like, “Maybe it is time for me to stop working here.” After a bit more conversation we decided this was the best solution. On Monday morning I sat down with the lead pastor and explained what happened. All seemed right. Later that day the chairperson of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC), the employee supervisory committee, spoke with the pastor and expressed her discomfort with what had transpired. Rather than talking to me about her feelings, he decided to play the hero and ambush me. I was called into an SPRC meeting where I was grilled about what had occurred. When I shared my side in front of the committee all was resolved.
As your staff member I do not expect you to agree with every decision I make, but I am asking you to resist the temptation to be the hero to every congregant who comes to you with a complaint about me. I am certain you would not like me to agree with those complains about the length of your sermons. Please give me the support you expect to receive from me. I need to know you’ve got my back. I have yours.
As a staff member, here is how I would like you to handle a complaint about me and/or my ministry:
- Avoid the path of least resistance.Â I understand that appeasing the one who has come to you might seem expedient, but acting on only one side of the story is imprudent. There may be circumstances, feelings, emotions, issues, and a whole host of other factors that you need to consider. Good leadership does not avoid the conflict. Instead, it moves “toward the roar,” working for resolution rather than avoidance.
- Listen. PleaseÂ listen to the congregant’s issue. Ask questions. Flesh it out. Get a good sense of the issue. Also, do the pastoral work of walking through their hurt with them.
- Bring the concern to me. Because transparency in the process is important, tell the one with the complaint that you will bring their concern to me. Then, in a private moment, tell me about your conversation. Please don’t do this during a church dinner, in the narthex after worship, or even in a staff meeting.
- Listen again, this time to me. Hear my side of the story. Brainstorm with me some ways we might be able to resolve this situation. Often some simple strategizing can diffuse the conflict.
- Tell me if I am wrong. If you believe I have made a bad decision, tell me. Then help me strategize a corrective strategy.
- Bring the parties together. If issues need to be aired out, bring the conflicting parties together for a meeting. Mediate resolution.Â The goal is not to determine right and wrong, or even to assess blame. Instead, seek to offer grace and healing to those who have been hurt.
A good process moves toward healing. Skirting the issue escalates conflict.Please don’t throw me under the bus. Work with me toward resolution.
Tomorrow we will talk about positive support as I address our fourth need: appreciation.